They gave me directions, not an address, and once I arrived, I could see why. There was no church here, no hall, no theater. I parked at the end of the dirt road by the lightning-blasted oak and peered toward the line of fir trees, fuzzed orange by the sinking sun beyond. I wondered, briefly, if this was a trick—lure the lady bartender out to the woods for nefarious purposes—but they’d paid half up front and the check had cleared, so I checked my professional demeanor in the rearview mirror, grabbed my bag, and got out of the car.
I walked up a little path to the top of a ridge, through the trees, looked down, and breathed out in relief. No redneck cannibal cabin, no altar of blood-spattered stone. There was a clearing below surrounded by trees, dominated by a pavilion of billowing white cloth, glowing like the moon in the slanting light. Figures moved around inside the tent in the typical pre-wedding commotion. There were chairs lined up on the grass beside the pavilion—not the usual folding chairs, but wooden ones, that looked handmade—in two ranks to create an aisle in between, and a freestanding arch at the end of the aisle covered in a profusion of vines and leaves and bobbing flowers. Lanterns stood on poles and hung on tree branches, already lit against the oncoming dark.
And there, behind the rows of chairs, a smaller tent, and underneath it, a few stools and a polished wooden bar and a long row of glittering bottles. My domain. If the guests were already here, I’d be busy soon. I wished they’d told me to come earlier so I could get set up and settled, but for what they were paying, I could hustle a bit.
I followed a natural path down the hill and headed for the bar. A woman was there, leaning on the far side of the bar, and when she saw me, she raised an eyebrow and smiled. My heart didn’t stop at the sight of her, but it certainly stuttered. She had long black hair in a profusion of curls, deep brown skin that spoke to some South Pacific island in her ancestry, and a face made smoothly perfect by nature and just a touch of the cosmetic arts. She wore a dark blue dress that wasn’t particularly low-cut or tight, but that nevertheless hinted at the shape underneath in tantalizing ways. This was a maid of honor if I’d ever seen one, and I’d seen many. No ring on the relevant finger, either. I had no expectations, but there was some precedent for post-wedding make-outs with lonely bridesmaids in my past. I provide generous pours and I’m a good listener, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
“Mmm,” she said. “The mixologist has arrived. I thought I’d have to drink from the bottle.”
Her voice, warm and husky, was familiar from the phone call and the offer of a rush job earlier in the day. “We can’t have that.” I came around the bar, doing a quick visual inventory. Most of the bottles were familiar, albeit very high-end stuff, but there were a few unmarked bottles. “What are those?”
“Personal gifts.” She ran a long finger “Elderflower liqueur, more or less. This one’s . . . something, I forget what . . . infused with rosemary and lavender. Dandelion wine. And this one is moonshine.”
I made a face. “White lightning, huh? I’ll be sure to pour that one only in very small glasses.”
“I didn’t say anything about lightning,” she said. “That’s much harder to bottle. But it is potent stuff.” She reached out and straightened my tie, though I’m sure it wasn’t crooked, and gave a little sigh. “Something about a woman in a bow tie always does me in. And that short hair.” She reached out, as it to ruffle my hair—I’m not sure I would have minded—but then stopped herself. “I’d better get on the other side of the bar,” she said, and moved to do so, elegantly drifting around and putting a foot of polished wood between us. “Did you bring what I asked?”
“Ah, sure.” She’d told me to expect a fully-stocked bar, but said I should bring my own metal bar gear—shaker, spoons, strainer, a knife to slice up garnish, all that. I unpacked the glittering paraphernalia from my bag. “Oh, good,” she said. “The bride loves martinis, shaken, but have you ever tried to make one of those in a wooden canister? It’s ridiculous. And you can’t use glass, of course, shake too hard and the ice breaks the vessel.”
“Uh. Right. Well. That’s why we use stainless steel.”
“Why don’t you make me a dry martini, straight up, with a twist of lime. Before the deluge.” She cocked her head, and I saw guests beginning to filter out of the pavilion behind her.
“Huh,” I said, making her drink. “I’ve never been to a masquerade wedding before.” The guests all wore elaborate masks and headdresses, birds and foxes and cats and other things I couldn’t identify, wild profusions of vines and crowns of roses, masks of mud, scales that glittered like jewels. I glanced at the bridesmaid’s bare but very pretty face. “Where’s your mask?” I poured glimmering liquor into a glass.
“Oh, we all wear masks of one sort or another,” she said. “You’re disguised as a bartender, and it’s a noble enough calling, but there’s more to you, isn’t there?”
I’d gotten the “So what do you really do?” question plenty of times. Most people assumed I was a would-be actor like most of my wedding-catering compatriots, and usually I ducked the query, or just made something up. But something about the way she looked at me over the rim of her martini glass made me say, “I write poems. Perform them, sometimes. No money in it, though, so.”
“A bow tie, short hair, and a poet, too. You’re an incitement to riot, aren’t you?”
A man in an amazingly realistic fox mask appeared and growled out a request for Glenlivet, and from there I got very busy. He managed to drink without taking his mask off, a trick that became commonplace as I saw it repeated throughout the night. The guests—there were only about thirty of them, all formally dressed and masked, all very thirsty—were polite and tipped astonishingly well, stuffing bills into an empty water pitcher. Most opted for the standard drinks, but I had a couple of requests for the moonshine, and as the sun sank down, the liquor seemed to glow in its bottle and in the glasses. That was a gimmick I hadn’t seen before, and I wondered how it was done, what bioluminescent or chemical agent was involved. Glowing drinks would be a big hit on the club scene, I figured.
There was eventually an ebb in the crowd as guests drifted over to the chairs on either side of the aisle, taking seats beneath the lanterns. The maid of honor was sitting on a stool before me when everyone else was gone, as if she’d never left, and she sucked an olive off a little plastic spear and smiled at me. “Buy you a drink?” she said.
“It’s an open bar,” I said.
“In that case, I’ll buy you two.”
“I’d like to try the moonshine,” I said.
She clucked her tongue. “Are you sure about that? It gives you a hangover you wouldn’t believe. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do a shot of it with you, but . . . like I said. It’s potent.”
“I’m a big girl.” I poured a shot for her, and one for myself.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She raised her glass, clinked it against mine, and we tossed them back simultaneously.
The liquor didn’t burn at all going down. It tasted like cool water from a stream, and like cold stones, and like silver, and like dust. I have the sort of tolerance most bartenders do, but the moonshine set me back on my heels and made my head swim, and the world swam with it: The trees seeming to shift and shiver and almost dance, clouds racing across the sky, and the moon—when had the moon risen, so fat and full?—seeming to pulse like a beating heart.
The bridesmaid touched my cheek and said, “It’s all right, you’ll feel like yourself again by the time the ceremony is over.”
I didn’t understand most of the ceremony. There were words, but mostly in some language I didn’t know. Lots of singing, but it was like animals singing, not people, frog croaks and wolf howls and bird cries. A bonfire seemed to appear before the arch, and the bride in her ice-white dress leapt over it, and the groom seemed to dance around her, tails of his black tuxedo flapping around legs that bent backward, like a stag’s or a goat’s. One moment it seemed like the guests were tearing their clothes off, the entire crowd, whirling together and kicking over chairs and biting into hunks of bloody meat, but the next moment they were dressed, seated primly, listening to an officiant in a vast antlered headdress drone on and on while the maid of honor bound the bride’s and groom’s hands together with a long strip of ragged cloth.
I leaned on the bar and tried to make sense of what I was seeing, but I must have fallen asleep, because someone tapped my cheek lightly, and when I opened my eyes, the bridesmaid was there. “The bride would love a vodka martini.” She rolled her eyes. “Which isn’t even fit to be called a martini at all, if you ask me, but the bride gets what she wants. And a double of the Pappy Van Winkle’s, neat, for the groom.”
“I . . .”
She poured me a glass of ice water and pressed it into my hands, and I drank it gratefully, some sense of clarity returning with each swallow. The guests were still masked, but there was no wood smoke, no shredded clothing, no smeared blood. The bride and groom stood near the arch of flowers, holding hands, gazing at one another. She glittered like white diamonds, and he was a slice of night.
“Right,” I said. “Drinks.” My hands knew what to do, even if my head was still a little spun ’round. Maybe the moonshine was hallucinogenic, like absinthe was supposed to be (but wasn’t really; I’d mixed enough Death in the Afternoons to know that much).
The maid of honor took the glasses. “Are you good? Your work is not yet done. These people . . . they tend to revel all night. And it’s a long night.”
“I’m a pro,” I said.
“Aren’t you just. We’ll see what happens if you make it to morning.” She strode away, glancing back over her shoulder at me, pointedly enough to make me wonder where she was staying, if she was in a hotel or bed and breakfast nearby, and if I might see what the inside of her room looked like before I went home.
I served drinks all night. There was dancing, and laughter, and toasts, and music from a live band playing fiddles and flutes and drums. If there was food, I never saw it—they seemed to subsist on liquor and merriment. The only strange moment was when the bride tossed the bouquet. The crowd of masked guests in their shimmering gowns clamored and raised their arms when she turned her back on them and made her toss, but the bouquet flew past all of them and landed on the bar, right in front of me. The guests turned, and stared at me, and when I picked up the bouquet from a puddle of spilled wine and held it up, they all cheered. I tucked the bouquet into an empty glass, the closest thing I had to a vase.
The bride and groom disappeared into the trees not long afterward, but the revels went on, and I fell into the familiar rhythm, even beginning to recognize people and remember their preferences: a gimlet for the leopard-headed man, a gibson for the peacock, a top-and-bottom for the silver she-wolf.
Eventually dawn touched the trees, and it was like all the energy drained out of the gathering. Guests leaned against one another and wandered off toward the woods, not back toward the road, but the other way, deeper into the forest. Maybe there were cabins back there, parking lots, limousines, a remote resort.
I yawned into my hand, closed my eyes, and stretched out my arms overhead. I felt like I’d been on my feet for days, and also like the night had flown by in moments.
When I opened my eyes, the bridesmaid was there, leaning on the bar, a hint of cleavage alluring as the promise of a new day. “Walk you to your car?” she said.
I nodded, packed up my things—including the astonishing profusion of bills in the tip jar—and held out my arm.
“How courtly.” She hooked her arm over mine and we walked up the hill toward the trees.
“Beautiful ceremony,” I said.“The bride and groom seemed happy.”
“Mmm. It won’t last. They’re too different. Light and dark. Those come together at dawn and dusk, sure, but the rest of the time, they’re miles and years apart.” She patted me on the arm. “Speaking of . . .”
I stood on the ridge and stared. My car was still there, but it was a wreck. The tires were rotted away to nothing, the body a skeleton of rust, the windows all broken. A fair-sized tree grew up through the ruins of the front seat and out through the windshield.
“That moonshine is potent stuff,” she said. “The hangovers can last for decades.”
Another pat on the arm, that turned into a caress. “Poets are always welcome where I’m from. Almost as welcome as a good bartender. And you did catch the bouquet. More or less. That’s a good sign.”
I turned my head to stare at her, and she stared back. Her eyes were shining. By which I mean, they emitted light, like there were lanterns inside her skull. Or a full moon.
“It’s going to be all right,” she said, and reached up to her face with lengthening fingers, and began to take off her mask.
Spread the word!